Category: homefulness


Remember that Spirit of the West song? I can’t get it out of my head, partly because I’ve spent much of the last three days using the North Memorial Library, which is on Gottingen… yes, the same one in the song. I’m here for the internet access, but also for the blessed aircon; the cooling system at the downtown branch (which is right across the street from the school of architecture) went kaput. This is very much a community library, located in Halifax’s poorest district, which of course you’ll know from the song, if you’re old enough. I like it here.

But I think the song is staying in my head because I’m also feeling more keenly homeless than I ever have before. Forced by the heat to sleep outside, I did find a perfect spot last night (really lovely in fact), but then I ran afoul of the street cleaners. Certain streets get cleaned on various nights of the week, with signs posted that I didn’t read clearly enough, obviously. Parking’s tight and very complex in this town, making my home feel more precarious than it used to: I’ve never before had so much trouble finding a place to put my home. So now I have a $25 ticket for putting it in the wrong spot, on a night I didn’t even sleep in it!

Most of all though, the song is in my head because of the roadblocks I keep running into with funding for school. Last time I used student loans for university, they calculated what you needed for the year and gave it to you, simple. Foolish me, that’s what I expected again! I won’t get into the details, but I guess I’m being reminded, in a very personal way, of how our system needs… ah, I mean wants poor people to stay right where they are. Not that I truly fit that category; I’m privileged in many, many ways. But right now I’m very money poor and the experience is making me alternately angry and depressed. Again I should rephrase: it’s not the experience of being poor that’s a problem, in fact I’m quite pleased with my improved budgeting skills. It’s the ‘are you crazy’ look people give me when I act like higher education is my right, and everyone’s.

Anyway, I got this far, and I swear I’m going all the way. I’ll show the bastards!

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Spryfield. The weather here has been baking hot, so I had to find a place where I could either just sleep outside, or feel comfortable leaving the van wide open while I slept. In the city I was getting really discouraged, so I headed west where it looked like there were lakes and parks. By about 11pm I found a little suburb on a high hill, with a gentle breeze and a little overgrown field. After I’d been there a short while two deer trotted out of the field, looked at me cautiously, then clopped into this yard to eat fallen apples. Getting a photo wasn’t worth scaring them away with the flash.

My encounter with the deer gave me new hope, but I do have to say, I vastly underestimated how hard this was going to be. I know Vancouver intimately; whatever my vandwelling needs may be at any given time, there I know exactly where I can go that suites them. Here just finding a place that isn’t going to violate the parking restrictions is a challenge. I’m worried about the effort that it takes to find a spot each night: will I be able to afford that kind of time once classes start?

Halifax has half a dozen or so universities and colleges that are starting classes this month, and the whole town is full of moving trucks, piles of stuff out in the streets, people either coming or going. On the one hand of course I’m reminded how lucky I am to be travelling light. On the other, for the first time since I started this adventure last November I’m remembering how it feels to not have to work at having a place to go each night.

I know, I know, it’s sunny and hot, everyone’s happy, blah blah blah. I like it too, but vandwelling in summer is actually turning out to be a pain in the ass. I’m much more restricted than usual in the food that I can keep, I always have to find shade parking, even at night I have to think about where the sun is going to come up in the morning, or else the the second it hits the van the heat will wake me up. Tuesday night was horrible… my light-tight super-private window panels don’t allow enough air in for nights like that, and I was suffocating. Around midnight I gave up trying to sleep, took a bottle of wine and a headlamp to mosaic park, and struggled with calculus problems until it cooled off.

The next night, Wednesday, I was dreading going to bed, and for the first time I really missed my old apartment… in summer I would leave the patio door open all the time, and on really hot nights I just slept out on the balcony… then it hit me, of course! Sleep outside.

At first I thought the beach would be perfect, but I didn’t want to drive all the way across town, or deal with sand, or wake up with the tide licking my feet. So I went over to Trout Lake, took a blanket and a pillow, and found a perfect little alcove made by three conifers. Slept on the grass under the stars, cool and comfortable, and I loved it so much I went back to the same spot last night too. Sure, it re-opens that whole is-it-camping-or-is-it-homelessness question… all I can say is, both nights I went to bed happy, and both mornings I woke up extremely pleased with myself. My new home in the park!

3rd Ave. and Lillooet. I think there’s something strangely pure about a block on which every single house is a Vancouver special!

For the last two days i’ve looked under the mattress, and while it wasn’t exactly damp, it wasn’t exactly dry either. I don’t trust it, is what I’m trying to say. So next payday I’m going to get some kind of cover that won’t allow vapour through, and see if that makes a difference.

Meanwhile, it’s so good to be back in the van! Altogether I think it was about two weeks that I was staying at other peoples’ houses, and while they were all really nice visits, I think I’ve become really attached to my own bed, moisture issues notwithstanding. That van really does feel like home.

Yesterday I was talking about one definition of home as being the separation between your own private space and the rest of the world. Another one that I think a lot of people might have is home as the container that separates their belongings from everybody else’s. Many people have told me the reason they can’t do what I’m doing is that they could never ever give up all their things; home is a place to put your stuff. The irony is, most people buy all that stuff because if they didn’t their home would be a series of empty rooms. They buy stuff to make their big home more comfortable. And of course we all want the biggest home we can afford, right? That’s part of the game as we were taught it: life is a constant struggle to keep claiming more space, and collecting more things. We want the space, and the things, to be ours.

With this definition the idea of my modular home fails, because the bathroom, the kitchen, the study… they’re not mine, they’re shared. With strangers no less! I’m getting all the same needs met, but it’s happening out in the community. Few belongings, no fixed address, and doing most essentials in shared public places… to a lot of people that really does mean homeless.

Hmm. So how come I’m so happy?

When you live in a house or an apartment the boundaries of your home are pretty obvious: you have a fence or walls that separate your living space from the rest of the world. As I was moving into the van one of my questions was, what are the boundaries of my new home? Can home really be everywhere? It’s been almost two months now, and I have a provisional answer.

The other day I was talking about my ‘modular’ home. There are functions of home that my van can’t fill, most obviously those of bathroom, kitchen, study; luckily there are many, many places all over the city that I can and do fill those needs. But do I feel at home everywhere in the city? No. Out of habit, or familiarity, or convenience, I’ve settled on Commercial Drive. The three B’s, in fact: Britannia Library, Britannia Pool, and Britannia Sushi! I’ve noticed that when I move my bedroom too far away from 3B I feel a little unsettled. I can usually find another ‘room’ nearby, which is an adventure and can be lots of fun of course, but it takes time and can get in the way of things I want to accomplish. I’ll generally just want to go ‘home’, which is where I’m familiar with all the rooms I need.

So that’s my answer, for now. If I can walk from my bedroom to the bathroom and the study and the kitchen, then I’m home. If I have to drive, I’m not. Once I’ve finished with all my applications I hope to add new rooms to my home, expanding throughout the city, but for the time being home is Commercial Drive.

Okay, so it’s not my birthday, but it does feel like it… I just made the final payment on the bank loan that bought my ex’s half of the van, which means for the first time in my life I can truly say that I own my own home. And I can put it wherever I want!

Years ago I met a guy in the Kootenays who was squatting on crown land halfway up a mountain, a half hour walking from any road. He’d built a cabin out of logs that he felled on site, he’d hauled up windows and a clawfoot tub and even a small cast iron stove, he’d diverted water from a nearby stream… he’d made a really gorgeous little home, with an incredible view of the valley. It was kind of isolated though, and I asked him what first inspired him to live there. He said, “Well I was born on this planet, so I don’t think it’s right that I should have to pay to live here.” Sensible, right?

I started vandwelling as a fun experiment, and had no intention of doing it past the summer, especially since all of my school applications are at places that are a lot colder in the winter than it is here. But I have to say… after this, it’s going to be really hard to go back to paying someone for the privilege of living in their home.

A few days ago I ran into someone I first met years ago in the shelter I worked at, who is currently homeless. He offered to sell me a Hope in Shadows calendar, and I told him that I didn’t have an apartment to put it in; that I had quit my job and was living in my van. “Right on” he said, “you joined the homeless team!”  We laughed, and I continued on my way.

I’ve said before that this project isn’t about homelessness, that I don’t qualify for that word. But there are two moments every day that I feel vulnerable to the stigma of being homeless: when I brush my teeth. If a car drives by me in that moment, or if a resident of the street where I slept the night before looks out the window, they see me doing something really unusual. It’s somehow an intimate act, and the only reason someone might be doing it in the middle of the road is that they don’t have their own bathroom. I can’t tell these strangers why I’ve chosen this lifestyle, or about how much fun I’m having with it, and the feeling that immediately comes up is shame, that they might think I’m here out of desperation.

Now why would that be shameful? I don’t judge people whose lives have taken a down-turn, I just wish them strength and luck in improving their situation. And regardless, what does the opinion of a passing stranger matter? It doesn’t… but I still feel that little twinge. And that twinge is just the faintest whiff of what it’s like to truly homeless.

But sometimes it works the other way too… for that moment with my old client I felt proud of my honorary membership on his team.

I stayed home at V’s all day yesterday, didn’t leave the house once. It was so great! So far vandwelling really has been a joyful experience, but it also takes a lot of energy always being out in the world, always having to create a place to be, and I don’t think I realized that I was getting a bit tired. This makes me especially happy with my plan of taking the weekends off vandwelling, because I think that’ll give me enough of a recharge each week that being in the world won’t feel oppressive. Of course this recharge could also be coming from the great food, great vino, and great company at Vero’s house. Or the butt rubs. Kidding! She told me to say that.

ANyway, many many thanks :)

walking

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before… part of my plan is to avoid driving as much as possible. Makes sense, right? Save the fossil fuels! (switching to biodiesel soon btw) Save my money too. Sometimes I’ll need to use the van for an errand, but for the most part I want to only drive it once each day, to my new sleeping spot.

But I still need to get around: to the pools, the libraries, yoga. At first I was picturing getting a bus pass, or sneaking onto the skytrain, but so far the dry cold weather has been perfect for walking. I’ve been walking everywhere, and it’s so good! What a different way of connecting with your world. You see more of what’s around you, and even though it’s only in passing, you’re amongst real people almost every moment, often making eye contact or smiling, sometimes saying hello. And it slows you down, in a good way. I’m used to biking as my main mode of transport, but even that seems too fast to me now.

At one point I said this project was about home, and it sounds corny but I have to say it: walking is a beautiful way to remind yourself that this place, these streets, this city, is home.